Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Read My Latest Article on Gregorian Chant!

Fraser Valley Parish Offers Oasis Filled with Gregorian Chant

By J.P. Sonnen

There has always been a strained relationship between the ideal and the reality when it comes to sacred music in the liturgy. 

Today a new generation of millennial Catholics is discovering a fascination with the art of Gregorian chant, seeing it in a fresh light, a mirror of the earthly liturgy as a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy. 

Accentuating the appeal of chant for this new clientele is the respect that it shows for the divine majesty as well as the pastoral intention of edifying the faithful during the liturgical services. 

Art in the Liturgy

Catholic liturgy seeks to elevate the faithful to prayer with every possible spiritual and artistic resource.

The concept of art in the liturgy and the liturgy as art is not new, although it is taking a new turn in a variety of Catholic circles, as many young people - including converts and non-Catholics - are beginning a re-evaluation of the spiritual role of Gregorian chant as art.

Vatican Council II, a worldwide gathering of bishops and other experts in the 1960s, declared that music is the highest form of art: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of immeasurable value, greater even than that of any other art” (S.C., 112). 

Catholic liturgies are famous for being enshrined in beauty and a big part of this beauty is the musical patrimony. 

In fact, all great art has instinctively selected religious themes, and this has come to pass in the Church’s selection of liturgical music.

Chant in the Fraser Valley

One parish in the lower mainland that is particularly drawing faithful by its unique repertoire of liturgical music, with Gregorian chant holding pride of place, is Saints Joachim and Ann in Aldergrove.

The Sunday Missa Cantata Mass, also known as the “Gregorian Mass,” draws a diverse array of faithful from across the Fraser Valley, including an occasional handful from the U.S.-Canada border crossing.   

For an older generation of Catholics, Gregorian chant may seem a mere ornament of the past.   However, at Sts. Joachim and Ann it is seen as exactly what has been called for by Vatican Council II.

The Council decreed in 1963: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as proper to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (S.C., 116).

Pastor and Choir Director

The pastor of Sts. Joachim and Ann, Fr. William Ashley, is a native of St. John’s, Newfoundland.  He grew up in the shadow of the great Cathedral of St. John’s, having lived first-hand the deep liturgical life of a cathedral parish in the 1950s, during a golden age of sacred music that included Gregorian chant for Solemn Mass and Vespers.

His father, Dr. John Ashley, was a classical languages scholar who made sure his son learned Latin and chant. 

While studying in Rome as a seminarian for an advanced graduate degree at the Angelicum, Fr. Ashley was accustomed to attending the great liturgies of the Vatican in St. Peter’s Basilica, where he was ordained priest in 1977.    

From his experience and knowledge of chant, Fr. Ashley knew that because of the nature of the technical requirements of chant, a chosen group of singers under the direction of a professional musician would be necessary in his parish.  

Mr. Alexander McCune stepped forward and was tapped to be the chant master at Fr. Ashley's parish.  Alex, a gifted conductor, director, teacher, vocal coach and performer, also happens to be a convert from Protestantism.  

A native of Edmonton, Alex became involved as a child in song and piano.  While studying at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Ontario, he began conducting and accompanying in the sacred choral program, which led to his expertise in chant.     

For centuries the faithful have sung simple Gregorian chant melodies.  This work has continued by the cultivation of chant in parish choirs, especially in small groups, as seen here.

Death of Chant and Revival

Religious art has always been subjected to the same exigencies as any other art, including that of the fluctuation of artistic taste. 

Fifty years ago the popularity of Gregorian chant was eclipsed by social changes that were provoked by the cultural revolution of the 1960s and thus it lost its central place in the Western Church.

The 1960s trend toward general popular culture, founded on rationalist and political principles that raised emotion to the same level as reason, resulted in new norms for simpler music.

Many unjust and sweeping generalizations and reproaches were used to disband choirs and do away with organ music, largely leaving choral music and chant by the wayside.

Every period of history has set special tasks for music in relation to worship.  History proves that valid forms of liturgical music need a long maturation period and outlive passing trends and fads unduly influenced by popular culture.     

Latin and Active Participation

Enter Latin.  The reason the Latin Church avails the forms of Latin declamation in sacred music – the distinct projection of Latin words set to music - is because the Church has not yet found a convincing melodic stylization for other languages, a stylization that would match the current repertoire of sacred music in Latin.    

Recent studies have shown that, concerning music, there is as much active participation in experiencing music as in singing oneself. 

This is because participation does not reside solely in outer activity, but also in the inner receptivity which is promoted by the power of sung music. 

While listening and experiencing are also forms of active participation, they are all the more penetrating when liturgical expression is authentically artistic.

A one-sided interpretation of active participation of the people gradually developed in the twentieth century, viewing music in the liturgy as something solely exterior (for example, the entire congregation singing every hymn together), which has historically never existed. 

The laity contribute, by virtue of their baptismal character, both through internal and external participation a full and active participation.  All the baptized, in all their Christian actions, participate in the worship offered by Christ. 

The authenticity and appeal of chant as the norm for Solemn Mass in the Roman rite is most certainly a form of participation on multiple levels. 

History of Chant

The integral unity between liturgy and the liturgical chants which had been developed in primitive Christianity and become evident in the Gregorian melodies is closely connected with their liturgical functions. 

The organic unity of chant did not result from a flash of genius, but from slow growth and steady evolution, from centuries of grappling with the problem of the spirit and form of liturgical singing. 

Even in early Church and synagogue worship, the offices of cantor, soloist, schola and choir had been established, because it was believed that the community as a whole had a duty to create and bring into being liturgical music worthy of God and of the highest artistic merit, while at the same time proper to the edification of the faithful. 

Although chants executed by the congregation have historically been limited by the very nature of the technical requirements of the music, the acclamations and the simple chants have always remained the charge of the congregation. 

The Catholic Church teaches that sacred music should reflect the artistic expression of the period while at the same time remaining the expression of the religious soul of man, distinct from secular forms.

Gregorian chant is not secular; it evolved from different roots, above all from Jewish worship – a prime example is Psalmody, the chanting of the Psalms of David.

Liturgy as Solemnity

The better the quality of the sacred music, the closer the choir becomes the sublime interpreter of the congregation, bringing to the congregational singing a quality of expression that by itself it could never achieve.

The best musical pageantry in the liturgy of the East and West is justified by the idea that divine worship must be a majestic solemnity which tries to imitate by the joy and quality of the music the adoration of the heavenly hosts. 

This is what draws and inspires young Catholics to attend the Gregorian Mass in Aldergrove, where the fullness of chant is being fostered, emitting eternal impulses for inspiration and stimulation.  

A very respected professional musician from Germany, Abbot Urbanus Bomm of Maria Laach Abbey, had this to say of chant:  “It may be unpleasurable to have to face Gregorian chant as a norm, but we should endure it.  Imitations will not do.  Genius and skill need deeper roots, and a universally accepted voice culture requires the same patience and effort as agriculture – and God’s blessing in due time.”

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent for Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.  

Source (the article opens best in Google Chrome): https://bccatholic.ca/content/fraser-valley-parish-offers-oasis-filled-with-gregorian-chant

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